Monday, August 20, 2012

Scribble Scribble, Hiss Scratch

Irvine Welsh squares off against Hilary Mantel for the Booker prize.
Oh, dear, the literati are at it again. That's them you hear down at the end of the garden, yowling and screeching, spitting and biting. Want to stop the noise? A bucket of water should do the trick, or you could try shouting, "Who'd like a nice, tasty Man Booker Prize?" Either should get their attention. Several recent news items/articles are proving, once again, that novelists are, pound for pound, the cattiest people on the planet.

First up is Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, who complained at this past week's Edinburgh international writers' conference that the judges of the Man Booker Prize discriminate against Scottish writers. He even calls them racist. Next up is Declan Burke, an Irish crime writer. In an article for the Irish Examiner he interviews three crime writers on the subject of whether crime fiction can also be called literature, and whether a crime novel will ever scoop a Booker. We also learn in this article that at an upcoming crime fiction conference in Scotland, two noted crime writers (Ian Rankin and Peter James) will actually debate this question (get your tickets now before scalpers jack the prices up). Finally, we have Laura Miller in a piece at opining that the reason the young adult fiction market is dominated by female writers is that male writers feel that there's no prestige attached to this genre. Men, she argues, concentrate their writing efforts in fields that earn critical accolades. Like the Booker, I assume.

What these stories and opinion pieces reveal is the green-eyed jealousy and animosity so many writers exhibit towards their brethren, and their willingness to make their feelings public. There are the genre writers who feel that room should be made for them at the grown-ups' table, and then we have the literary writers who claim they're being insufficiently praised, or that the wrong writers are getting the kudos. And God forbid if you're a writer who sells books in the millions. A mega-selling author like, say, J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown inevitably attracts a ton of ridicule from their peers.

It seems to me that all this very public angst and anger is unique to the world of fiction writing. No other art form has participants who are so anxious to engage in public acts of criticism and cannibalism. Last time I checked, David Hockney had no issues with Thomas Kinkade's success, and unless I missed something in art history class, sculptors have never felt they were being taken less seriously than painters or vice versa. Does Yo-Yo Ma make snide remarks about Steve Martin's banjo playing? Is Andre Rieu venting on Twitter about the fact that he hasn't been offered the baton with the New York Philharmonic? Did Jean-Luc Godard ever complain that he should have been given a shot at directing one of the Star Wars sequels?

It's certainly true that all cultural fields have their share of in-fighting and backbiting, but the literary world seems to be filled with a constant background hum of anger at the other guy or girl. Why is this? I think writers believe that their particular art form is the big kahuna of creativity: painting, music, dance, and films are, in their view, either ephemeral, limited in intellectual scope, ghettoized in galleries, or too populist. Literature, they feel, is, and always will be, the art form of record. And if that's the case, deciding what's literature and what isn't, and who gets the gold stars for good work, becomes exceedingly important.

What makes all this invective and bitterness amusing is its utter pointlessness. There has never been a universally agreed upon definition of "literary" fiction, so it becomes futile to try and describe a novel as being literary or merely genre. There's simply no benchmark for defining the difference between the two. There's good writing and bad writing, just as there's good sculptures and bad ones, and great songs and lousy ones.  And crime fiction writers really do have to shut up and stop whining about not being taken seriously; you guys sell a ton of books and the quality of your writing is frequently superb. You should spare some sympathy for those boobs still writing westerns: nobody pays them any attention. Speaking of westerns, that's the only rebuttal needed for Laura Miller's argument; that particular genre's a prestige-free zone and it's solidly male. And as for Irvine Welsh, he makes a very poor case for the idea that Scottish writers are being scorned by the Booker judges. He bases his argument on the fact that in the history of the Booker only 11 out of 255 nominees were Scots. That's roughly 5% of the total. Sounds low until you remember that the Booker is open to writers in the UK and the Commonwealth, and that represents a population of well over a billion people. That makes Scotland, with its population of just over 5m, wildly over-represented on the list of nominees. Of course, England also gets far more than its fair share of nominees, so it's really authors from India who should be doing the complaining here. The Booker prize judges are clearly biased in favour of UK writers. What Welsh seems to want is a greater share of that bias.

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